Working Hard

Yew in the courtyard of Muckross Abbey, Killarney, Ireland.

Berlin has inexplicably continued to be cool. It feels like I just keep waiting and waiting for summer to come, but it never does. Just as Berlin has failed to warm up for me, I have also failed to warm up to Berlin. I’ve been riding my bike all around this city, seeing more of its little crevices, but my opinion of it has stayed mostly the same. I don’t really like it here… but at least I’ve been busy.

We had a major deadline at work, that we got started on way too late. This resulted in me having to multi-task quite heavily to get things done in time. The end result wasn’t as nice as I would have liked, but that’s how it goes when you have to work fast.

Late superbloom near Gorman, California.

Apart from work, these two months have been full of travels. In April, I headed back to LA to visit my family and for the wedding of a friend. I worked remotely, which put a bit of a damper on my time at home, but I was still able to enjoy the weekends. My family managed to take some time off over Easter weekend, for which Germany gets two national holidays (so I didn’t have to work), and we headed up North.

Southern California is very dry, but every few years, there’s a huge rain. Whenever it comes, the flowers go crazy, all blooming at once, painting the hills in pastel oranges, yellows, and blues. This year, there was a particularly lovely superbloom, so that’s where we were headed. We found the flowers growing in Gorman and Antelope Valley. Since we came a bit late in the season, it was mostly orange California poppies, blue lupines, and yellow mountain daisies, but there were some other kinds as well.

After Antelope Valley, we kept heading North to Big Sur. There we hiked to some waterfalls, saw more wildflowers, observed a huge group of seals on the beach, and played around in some tide pools. It was a bit chillier than I would have liked, so we didn’t go swimming, but we still had a lovely time.

These are the kinds of road trips that I have really missed since I moved away. We used to do this almost every weekend when I was a child, and although we did argue sometimes, mostly, I have fond memories of that time.

The next weekend was my friend’s wedding, which I can honestly say was one of the best weddings I have ever been to (besides my own, of course!). My friends make a perfect couple, so their wedding was also perfect, incredibly honest and just plain fun. The wedding tied together traditional Jewish elements, more modern traditions, and still kept a bit of their own quirkiness in the mix. For example, they did this awesome thing the day before, where their friends all got together for a massive cookie bake. I think there were 30 different kinds of cookies in the end, and these formed the dessert at the wedding, in lieu of a cake. The wedding itself was held at Union Station in LA, in the sunny courtyard, and the reception was inside the old ticket hall, with beautiful mosaic patterns on the walls, high ceilings, and big chandeliers.

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

Almost immediately after the wedding, my husband and I flew back to Europe, but not straight to Berlin. Instead, we headed to Ireland We met his family there, and spent another week mostly out in nature. Since it was spring, the sheep were having babies out in the green fields, so I got the feeling that Ireland is basically made of green hills, sheep and rocks. Of course, it was much cooler in Ireland than in LA, and it even rained on us a few times, but we still enjoyed our time there.

After a lovely three weeks mostly spent out in nature, it was time to fly back to dirty, grey, Berlin. My husband’s family followed us there, and visited us for a couple more weeks. I was at work most of the time, of course, but we still managed to get together for some lunches and dinners. It was really nice having family nearby… it felt kind of like the continuation of our vacation.

Costs (2 months):

  • €2288 – rent
  • €300 – utilities/internet/phone
  • €132 – clothes
  • €182 – train tickets/travel
  • €555 – dining out
  • Total: €3457
Hiking trail in Big Sur, California.
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Cinque Terre

 

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View from the Church of St. Peter in Portovenere.

We went to Cinque Terre twice this month. The first time was over the Ferragosto holiday in the middle of August, and the second was with our friends, who came to visit from the US at the end of August. It wasn’t our intention to go twice, that is, we might have gone elsewhere the first time, had we realized we’d have a chance to go to Cinque Terre later in the month, but we didn’t regret the trips at all.

Cinque Terre, meaning “Five Lands,” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national park in Liguria, located on the Italian riviera, near Genova. It contains five coastal fishing villages, built up on the rocky Ligurian shoreline, strung together by a verdant hiking path winding its way through and above the villages. Each town has its own character, but they share certain themes, such as pastel-coloured houses, steep steps climbing through crooked alleyways, hole-in-the-wall fried fish joints, and lovely little beaches or swimming holes in the clear blue waters of the Mediterranean.

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The booming of a thunderstorm could be heard in the villages as it reflected off the cliffs.

From North to South, the villages are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Portovenere lies even further south, and might be considered the “sixth” Cinque Terre, though it is not officially part of the park. The larger towns of Levanto and La Spezia lie to the North and South, respectively, of the park. Both times we visited, we found that it was easiest to find accommodation in La Spezia, which is the largest town in the area. I can heartily recommend both of our La Spezia AirBnBs (Tina’s House, suitable for one couple, and Wiwi, suitable for two couples). The hosts were incredibly welcoming, incredibly accommodating, quick to answer inquiries, and the apartments were both well furnished and conveniently located, including all the necessities (even AC). The first host whisked over to our place in just 10 minutes when we had some trouble with the power, and the second host brought us the freshest figs I’ve ever had straight from their garden for no reason at all! We did also stay one night in Corniglia with my husband, but the AirBnB we stayed at was basically just a normal hotel room with a nice view, and did not compare to the amazingly warm welcome we received at the two La Spezia locations.

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La Spezia, near the docks.

La Spezia was a perfect base of operations. It is very walkable, has plenty of food/stores/gelato open at night, and provides connections via train to each of the Cinque Terre towns plus Levanto, via bus to Portovenere and Lerici, and via ferry to Portovenere, Lerici, Levanto, and each of the Cinque Terre except Corniglia. There are also bus connections to Portovenere and Lerici (the latter of which we unfortunately didn’t have time to visit). The ferry (provided by the company Consorzio Marittimo Turistico) costs around 35 euro for a day pass, that you can use any number of times, or around 6 euro for one trip. Since I get seasick on longer trips, I only did a single ride from Vernazza to Monterosso using the ferry, and it was definitely worth it.

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The ferry landing at Vernazza, headed to Monterosso.

The train, on the other hand, is cheaper, and it goes way more often, although it mostly goes through dark boring tunnels. The cost is 4 euro per ride, but it’s way more worthwhile to get the day pass (at the Cinque Terre Point stores) for 16 euro, so you can hop back and forth using the train. The day pass also lets you access the lovely hiking trains that wind through and above the five towns. If the weather isn’t blazingly hot, and if the trails are open, hiking is probably the best way to travel between the towns. Each section of the trail takes between 1.5 and 2.5 hours (depending on the section). Unfortunately, the days that we traveled there, two of the trails were closed due to mudslides, the rest of the trails were closed at some times due to thunderstorm warnings, and anyways, it was over 30 degrees C most of the time. Actually, I love weather over 30 degrees C, because it’s the perfect swimming weather, and swimming, particularly in the pleasant Mediterranean waters, is one of my favorite activities. We did wind our way through the staircases of each of the towns, and hiked a bit to see the main sights, but I have to admit, we spent most of our time in the water. I would love to return in the spring or fall, just to do all the hikes. I actually think there would probably be a few weeks in early September that could be perfect for both hiking and swimming, assuming the trails were open. You could hike to each town, and get a fish cone at each stop!

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Deep fried anchovies, mussels, calamari,veggies, and even a chicken wing somewhere in there.

The largest beach that we visited was in Levanto. Much of it was dedicated to rent-a-chair type places, which we have taken to calling “vacation factories,” since you are packed in literally side-by-side to all the other tourist-goers, and you get the same perfect sun/beach/food/lounge experience. If that’s your thing, Levanto has a good amount of it, though it does have a small section of public beach, were you can put down your own towel as well. The beach in Levanto is made up of small rocks, which get larger as you start heading into the water. The day we went, the waves were actually large enough, that there were surfers stationed at the wave line, riding them in as they formed. The waves weren’t as big as what I’m used to in SoCal, but there was definitely a very strong undercurrent, and they started out pretty far, so that I just didn’t feel comfortable swimming out there without a flotation device. I did see some swimmers out there, but for the most part, it was just surfers.

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Surfers and swimmers awaiting a wave on the pebbly beach of Levanto.

South of Levanto is the first of the Cinque Terre towns, Monterosso. This is the most vacation-factory style town out of all of them. The beach, which is right outside the train station, is smaller than the one in Levanto, but similar to Levanto, it is sandy-ish. There’s a bit of a bay created by a jutting out of the land to the North, which seems to lessen the waves to a gentle roll, and the water is clear and warm, making this a wonderful spot to go swimming… as long as you can stand having your towel propped up right against another person’s on the teeny tiny public portion of the beach. Once again, most of this beach is devoted to the vacation factory, where you can rent a chair-umbrella combo, but when we were there, all the chairs were rented out already anyway. There are some food stands up near the train station, where you can get cones of deep fried seafood (I didn’t know I liked anchovies until I had them fresh here), French fries, and chicken wings. If you walk a bit further from the train station, you reach the older part of Monterosso, where tourist souvenir shops and restaurants line cute little streets. In short, Monterosso is pleasant, and comfortable, and a great place to relax, but in a land of touristy towns, it is touristy to the very max.

The next town over is Vernazza, a small town with one main road. The hiking paths just above Vernazza on both the Monterosso and Corniglia sides provide stunning views of the entire village below. The large pier creates a sandy (but also a silty) little beach, providing a sheltered enclosure, where hesitant swimmers can safely splash around. The outside of the pier has a ladder down into the water, so braver swimmers can dive right in off the edge to swim amongst the waves, and climb back up via the ladder. It’s just like swimming in a swimming pool, except your pool is the entire Mediterranean Sea. Another beach is located at the other end of the town, underneath an archway of the distinctive layered rock found in this region. This beach was apparently created by a recent flood that unfortunately claimed some lives, so it is superficially tethered off, but there are as many swimmers here as anywhere else. More delicious cones of fried fish, focaccia pizza, and farinata (chickpea flour based flat bread from the region) is available at stands along the main road.

The next town to the South is Corniglia. This one is situated on top of a hill. The train station is near the bottom of the hill. Therefore, you either have to hike around 1km up some stairs, or you take a bus that comes approximately every 20 minutes during the day to the top. Since it’s a tad bit harder to reach, less tourists make it up here, giving the town a bit of a cozier vibe. There is a lovely viewpoint inside the town, above a small soccer court, where you can see Manarola down the coast, and a nice view of Corniglia itself just up the road from the main square, next to a vineyard. There are plenty of lovely sit-down restaurants inside this town, with local pastas (e.g. trofie) smothered in local pesto Genovese, and more delicious fresh anchovies, as well as local wines.

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Corniglia viewed from up the street.

Down the coast from Corniglia is Manarola, another pastel-coloured village with just one main street. There is a path here, which slopes upwards to a peak overlooking the entire little town. The wine bar at the top always has an incredibly long line. As lovely as the view is, the swimming is even better. It might be funny to see people setting up their towels on the long boat ramp, but you have to look further to see the real beauty of this swimming hole. The boat ramp leads down into a calm-watered pool, sandwiched between a rocky pier to the left, and a real treasure: a very climbable rock. The rock can be jumped from at various points, from varied heights, providing adventure for the more timid jumpers as well as the braver ones. The tallest point of the rock is around 4.5 or 5 person-heights high (I would guess around 10 meters or so), and juts out perfectly, to allow for a smooth and easy dive into a deep hole. I was too scared to jump off that height though, so the most I did was a jump from around 2.5 person-heights. For those who do not want to jump, there are ladders on both sides of the pier, the sheltered side, and the outside which faces the sea.

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Manarola viewed from the walk above it.

The Southernmost village of the Cinque Terre is Riomaggiore, which, like the others, has its own distinctive character. Here, I enjoyed walking around, and exploring the nooks and crannies of the hilly town, filled with steep and narrow staircases, winding up and down the cliffs. I didn’t get the chance to spend too much time here, though I believe there may be a beach off to one side that I did not visit. I suppose I will just have to come back another time!

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Riomaggiore.

Finally, South of all of the Cinque Terre, sits Portovenere. A bus connection from La Spezia (bus P) takes visitors to this small town, which follows the same architectural themes as the other five towns, though it is officially not part of the national park.  The day we visited, a thunderstorm had come through in the morning, leaving a half-cloudy sky in its wake, and some breathtaking views for us to enjoy. The sea was a deep blue, and the setting sun cast its golden rays over the lush cliff side, whenever it peaked its head through the clouds.

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Portovenere.

We explored the church of St. Peter laid with striped bricks on the very tip of the town, and a pathway up to a fort on top of the cliff. The fort was was closed by the time we got there, but on the way we saw an homage to Portovenere by sculpture Scorzelli, titled Mater Naturae. The statue is of a voluptuous middle-aged woman, wearing a simple undergarment, gazing out at the sea beyond the town. It seems to me, that, tired from a difficult life, she looks out longingly at what might have been, but, also with some pride for the work she has wrought.

Torino

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The lid to a huge sarcophagus of a high ranking vizier, painstakingly carved of a very hard, nearly black stone.

Last weekend we visited Turin/Torino, the capital of the Piemonte region, and the first, original capital of Italy. It took around 5 hours to reach it from Rovereto (by the cheaper regional trains), so we left on Friday night. The weather was lovely almost the whole time. The first day, we wandered around the town, enjoying the sights and delicious food, before eventually heading into the Egyptian Museum. The top couple floors of the museum were alright, but all the cool stuff was on the bottom.

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The Book of the Dead. Osiris presides over the afterlife ritual, in which Anubis weighs the heart of the deceased against the feather of Ma’at, while Thoth records the result. If the heart is heavier than the feather, it will be consumed by the hippo-lion-crocodile monster Ammut.

The second day, my husband had a Netrunner (card game) tourney, so I headed off on my own. I took my stuff with me so I could head back home in the evening. It was Sunday, so my plan was to take a tour bus out to Sacra di San Michele, an abbey at the top of a cliff overlooking Torino, around an hour away. From my research online, it seemed that this place was a little annoying to reach by public transport on most days, involving some confusing combination of bus/train connections and hiking, but on Sundays in summer they run a tour that goes straight there, leaving Torino at 8:30am, and going back from the Sacra at 13:00. This sounded way less confusing, so I booked that.

I arrived at the bus stop a few minutes early. I found a large Pullman/Greyhound type of bus, and asked the driver if he knew which bus I should take to the Sacra di San Michele. He said it was his bus. I showed him my phone ticket, which he glanced at, and waved me through. We headed in the direction of the Sacra, gathering a few more people along the way, and I tried to rest a little since I hadn’t slept that well the night before. We reached the town of Sant’Ambrogio di Torino, when the bus driver alerted me that this was my stop. I could see the Sacra way up on the top of the hill nearby.

This was confusing, since I had been under the impression that this bus went straight to the church, not to the town nearby. But from doing my research earlier, I knew that there should be a path to get to the church from here. As I was getting off the bus, the driver told me he was returning around 17:40, I think, from the stop across the street. Again, I had been under the impression that the return bus was at 13:00. When I asked him about this, he said yes, I should wait at that stop at 13:00. Okaaay.

It was only once I got off the bus that I noticed a missed call on my phone, and some text messages. Apparently, the driver of my original tour bus had been unable to reach me, and had left without me. But if the driver of the tour had been unable to reach me, then what bus had I ended up taking? And why had the driver of this bus let me on with a ticket for a different bus?

I was looking at my phone, pondering these questions, when an old lady, who had been on the bus with me, started talking to me. She had heard my conversation with the driver, and she really seemed to want to help me. She described to me how to reach my destination, which was the same way I expected. I would have to hike up the Antica Mulattiera (Old Mule Path), 600 meters straight up. The path was well maintained, laid with stones, and though I was carrying a bit too much on my back, and the weather was a bit too warm for hiking, it was still a nice walk. It took me about 1.5 hours to make the hike, and the views at the top were definitely worth it.

For the way back, I was no longer very confident that the Pullman which I had taken here originally would actually come at 13:00, since the old lady that had helped me earlier, who was from the area, said it only comes in the evening. I had a plan to hike back down and then keep walking until I reached a train station to go back to Torino. However, I also texted the tour operators from the morning again, asking them how to reach their actual return bus. They were helpful, but not very good at explaining it. Anyways, long story short, the road up to the abbey stops at Colle della Croce Nera. That’s where I finally found my bus (which, by the way, was meant to leave at 12:30, not at 13:00 as I was originally given to understand). The driver realized that I was his missing passenger, and seemed annoyed at the situation from the morning, but I think he understood that something had gone wrong on their end (and I made plenty of apologies to assuage him). In any case, he was happy to take me back, and this was much faster.

When I first arrived in Italy, before I could speak some basic Italian, I would not have felt comfortable making a multiple train/bus connection journey like this one for fear of exactly this happening. But now, I know that if something goes wrong, I can probably find someone who is willing to suffer my poor accent to help me find a way back. Additionally, having hiked a ton over the last year, I feel comfortable walking longer distances now as well. I was nervous about this trip from the start, since I knew the destination was a bit harder to reach without a car, but in the end, the skills I’ve gained over the last year helped me feel more comfortable traveling around.

Weeks 93 through 97

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View of the castle in Malcesine.

The last month has been a whirlwind of work! I somehow managed to submit nearly everything that was due. I never quite wrote the outline for the thesis for my UniTN adviser. Instead, I sort of started rolling all the reports I had written into a preliminary thesis outline, and then worked on fleshing parts out while my models were running. It’s still not entirely clear to me how much detail I should go into on certain aspects of the thesis, so I am just writing what I can in the meanwhile, and hopefully, I’ll manage to flesh it out better once my results are in.

Unfortunately, I’ve hit some snags in my code (i.e. nothing runs!), so I haven’t been able to get the type of results I’m looking for (i.e. any results!). I still have results from the internship portion of my work at FBK, but they aren’t well organized or complete. I think because of how long it takes to train models on our hardware, I’m going to have to sacrifice having an interesting and novel work to present, since I have to finish running all the baselines and the different data combinations. Basically, I won’t have any time to play around with two thirds of the things I would have liked to play around with, and that’s just sad. I guess I could theoretically extend my thesis until December, but I really would prefer to graduate in October.

I don’t want to drag this out, partly because I am looking forward to moving elsewhere. It has been a good learning experience to live here, but in the end, there are certain aspects of life here that I find incredibly exhausting. Bureaucracy is, of course, the main thing. It’s possible that I would become accustomed to it over time, and there are certainly aspects of life here that are wonderful, so I’m not totally against staying, but in any case, I would want to move out of Rovereto, which is simply too difficult to travel to/from.

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Light show on a building in Nancy.

The LCT meeting happened last month in Nancy, and just like last year, it was an absolute blast to meet so many awesome people. Nancy was practically impossible to get to from Rovereto, so I actually traveled back to Saarbrücken for the week. I met with my University of Saarland adviser there, to present to him the proposal for my master’s thesis. I had a lot of slides prepared on the math and the models and such, but, of course, he is an expert in my field, and so for those, he just said “skip it.” I was happy to hear that, because I didn’t want to talk about it anyway! Overall, I think the meeting went pretty well, because I was able to anticipate most of the questions that came up, and he did have some good advice for me as well. Apart from that, I got to see a bunch of folks from last year, which was of course the best part.

After that, I headed to Nancy for the LCT meeting. Although Nancy was nice, it didn’t compare to last year’s destination of Malta, of course. Also, unfortunately, we couldn’t all have a nice dinner together either, due to some organizational issues. But we still managed to hang out a lot. The city had a nice vibe, with plenty of buildings decorated in the art nouveau fashion. There was a river that we hung out at one of the evenings. They also had this awesome light show at around 11pm on the buildings in the main square. Actually, it was probably the coolest light show of this type that I’ve seen.

In any case, this year, the meeting was shorter. As a second year, I had to present a poster on my internship/thesis work. It wasn’t that great, because I don’t really have good results or conclusions to make from my thesis work, but it was still a good experience. I had to present the same poster at a mini-conference at work the next week, so I was happy to have the whole thing down pat by then. There was one pretty good invited speaker, and the others, I don’t know, because this time around, I had the good sense to sleep instead. However, I still got pretty sick at the end of the week. I guess travel, and late nights will do that for you. The worst part was that one of the days I was walking home, late at night, like around 2am, and suddenly, from a window above me, someone threw water, and it hit me. I got splashed with dirty who-knows-what water, out of a French window– just like in the movies, but in a bad way! Anyways, I spent the next week coughing and sneezing, but luckily got better in time to enjoy the next few weeks of summer.

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View of the Dolomites from Kolbenstein, a small town above Bolzano.

So then, apart from work, I’ve had a nice summer, full of aerial silks performances, and friends visiting. More friends are scheduled to visit soon, and I’m very much looking forward to that. The only trouble is that I haven’t had much time to travel to the places I would like to travel to, since every time friends visit, we go to the same big touristy places that they haven’t seen yet. Maybe it will be possible for me and my husband to plan something over a couple of weekends in the next month, but time is wearing thin to make plans; the rest of Italy is going on vacation in July and August, and things are basically getting booked out. In any case, I will be very busy with work, besides. So I’m not really optimistic about getting to see much more of Italy this summer, I’m afraid.

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Ducklings in Lago di Garda, at Malcesine.

Nevertheless, I’ve very much enjoyed spending time with friends! Last weekend, we went to Malcesine on Lago di Garda. The weather was lovely, so we walked around the town, and then rented some stand-up paddle boards. I managed to get on my feet on the thing a couple of times, but I found that controlling it, and especially, having any power to move against the wind and the waves, was pretty difficult while standing. I was able to move easily while standing on my knees though, and it still felt great to just be on the water. It reminded me of the times I used to go to the Columbia River Gorge near Portland, Oregon. If I have a free day again this summer, I just might come back here.

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Little birds (swallows?) were swooping all around the castle in Malcesine.

Costs:

  • €225 – rent
  • €55 – internet
  • €85 – phone (for 2 months)
  • €320 – travel (including some tickets and food)
  • €260 – clothes (including new sandals)
  • €60 – medical expenses, including routine blood check for hypothyroidism levels
  • €8 – video games
  • Total: €1,013

Vacation

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Last month, our families came to visit. First my husband’s family and then my own. In total, we had family here for around a month, although I was only able to take around 2.5 weeks off. It was great to see everyone, and to get the chance to travel around Italy a little bit. In total, we visited Bologna, Venice, Bolzano, Castel Beseno, Florence, Rome, Pompeii, and Sicily.

Tips

I don’t have many tips for these places that you can’t find elsewhere, so I’ll compile the few I have here at the top since the rest of the post is pretty long.

  • Rome: 3 days is enough, official taxis are white and they are cheap and efficient; deep fried artichokes are amazing (“carciofio alla giudia”)
  • The Vatican: during tours at the Vatican, you can drop off your headset and keep going on your own if you want; spend a bit of extra time in the map room, because there’s a lot going on here; Garage Vespasiano can even take giant cars (but bringing a car to Rome is pretty pointless)
  • Pompeii: use the Circumvesuviana train to get there from Napoli (follow signs from the central station to their platforms), but watch the stop names outside the train to make sure to get off at “Pompei Scavi”, because the map might be missing stops on it; check out Villa dei Misteri (NW corner) for some really cool frescos
  • Sicily: spend a week here; renting a car at the airport makes sense to travel around the island; driving on highways feels similar to driving in LA (but I don’t know about driving in Palermo; that might be hard); don’t rent a big car or it won’t fit on small roads; keep in mind that Google maps will send you on tiny cobblestone streets that you aren’t supposed to drive on because they are limited to residents, so pay good attention to street signs
  • Venice: 1 day is enough to walk around the center and then take a ferry (“vaporetto”) back to the train station; there is parking in one area on the island but there’s not much point in bringing a car
  • Bolzano: buy speck (cured pork), take the cable car (10 euro there and back) to Soprabolzano and check out some of the views and hikes there
  • Trentino area: check out Castel Beseno, which is the largest fortification in the area and the views are amazing; there is 2 hour break between 10 and 12 in trains in the mornings, so plan around that for travel
  • Florence: the line for Uffizi can take an hour or more, so plan accordingly; eat amazing lunch sandwiches at “I’ Girone De’ Ghotti” on the way there from the cathedral

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The families

Our two families are similar in some ways, but different in others. They bring with them different stresses. My husband’s family likes plans, and I find it difficult to improvise or to explore, lest we go off the rails. My family, on the other hand, fails to make any plans, and as a result, everything is in utter chaos most of the time, making it difficult to achieve goals. Both families have strong opinions. Also, both families have members temporarily dealing with some health/walking difficulties so we move pretty slowly.

However, I feel that this year, things went pretty well overall. There were no big arguments and we got to do almost everything we set out to do together. The biggest stresses came from factors outside our control, that is, less from our interpersonal relations, and more from just stressful situations that occurred, and in the end we handled all of them.

I would very much like to pretend that the successes partly came from my experiences in Italy over the last year. I wish I could say that I have somehow become a more open and laid back person, capable of handling complex situations in a calm manner. I remember in the past once being playfully called “small and intense” (but in every joke there is a kernel of truth). It would be nice to think that over the last year I have become more relaxed, but without losing whatever positive aspects “intenseness” entails (such as perhaps focus or emotive capacity). But most of the successes of the vacation can more likely be attributed to my husband’s empathy and forethought than any of my own abilities, or else just to dumb luck with things working out as they should.

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Crisis

The most tense moment was when we lost someone. We were on the Circumvesuviana train from Napoli to Pompeii, and although this train is the simplest way to get to Pompeii, it is really shitty. It’s old and rattly and hot, and it makes many stops along the way. Before heading out, I got a timetable and map of the stops from their info center. As our stop was nearing, we moved to the front of the train. On the map, I saw that the next stop should be “Pompei Scavi (Pompeii excavations)” and told people to prepare themselves.

My husband’s brother was at the front as the doors opened and his parents were behind me (my husband was sick that day so he wasn’t with us). The doors opened and my husband’s brother hopped out. As quickly as they opened, they closed! I swear, it was something like 3 seconds that they were open, maximum. I tried to hold them open, but it was the old sort of train where the doors don’t sense people (it was kind of dangerous, to be honest). Just in that moment we realized this was not Pompei Scavi, but some other stop, although the map had not shown another stop in between. The train left, with my husband’s brother stuck on the platform. He didn’t have his phone since it wasn’t working in Italy, and he doesn’t speak a word of Italian. As the train pulled away, I made a motion for him to wait through the train door window, which I felt he understood.

We got to the next stop and went into full gear. I ran to buy a ticket for the next train back, and my husband’s parents got the station to call back to the previous stop to tell them what happened. Unfortunately, the station said they didn’t see him on the platform. Everyone was freaking out, but all things considered, I felt pretty calm. I felt that he had understood to wait (where could he go, after all?), and that the next steps were clear to me. I only had some restless anxiousness as I waited for the next train. Fortunately, it came in just 10 minutes, and the stop was only another 5 minutes away. All told it probably took around 25 or 30 minutes to get back. As I exited the train, however, I realized the platform was completely empty. No brother-in-law. No one at all, really. I descended the stairs, and saw only the exit doors.

Somehow, in this moment, it all caught up with me, and I felt that wave of panic starting to rise. I forced myself to calm down, and decided to thoroughly search the platforms above before trying to head past the exit doors (which I would be unable to re-enter without spending a ticket). I finally returned downstairs and went around the corner towards the exit doors– and there he was, sitting at the cafe bar. Of course, he had known the best course of action was to stay put. The station operators had found him after we called ahead (without being able to inform us), and had gotten him some coffee and water to calm his nerves while he waited. Crisis averted.

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Pompeii

We spent the rest of the day in Pompeii and I returned later once again with my family. I can really recommend spending a day there, especially if the weather is nice, because it’s just incredible to see how people lived back then (not so differently from us in fact), how vivid their frescos and other art was, and how much of the city has survived until now.

The Vatican

Other than the time we lost my husband’s brother, there were no major incidents. Of course everyone traded sicknesses as usual, we were late to many places, and had to figure out how to get around and where to eat, but these were normal every day stressors. Our families were together for only one of the days, and this was the day we decided to go to the Vatican. We had been too late to buy individual tickets, so we ended up having to get tickets in part of a tour. This tour was awful. The Vatican was super crowded and the tour lady raced through the coolest parts of it, so we kept losing people in the crowds. We should have just returned our radios to the lady after we got past the doors at the start, and walked through the rest of the museum on our own instead, because it would have been way less stressful.

Rome

In fact, we spent too much time in Rome, since our family trips only overlapped over one day there, and both families wanted to see everything. Unless you travel there specifically for the many different museums, it’s really just a big city like most other big cities, which is to say, 3 full days (not counting travel days) are enough to see the main sights. In terms of traveling around Rome, it’s true that we could have likely taken public transport almost everywhere, but being with people who had some trouble moving around, it made better sense to take taxis, especially since they were actually surprisingly cheap and incredibly efficient. It probably cost us an average of 5 euro per person per ride.

My parents had decided to rent a car since they were staying at an AirBnB some ways outside of Rome, but the only car they could find to fit everyone was a massive behemoth, half the size of a bus. This sequence of decisions all made little sense. The behemoth could hardly be driven in Rome and we would spend at least 30 minutes just searching for parking. Eventually, we found the one parking garage (Garage Vespasiano) that the behemoth could fit into, but sometimes that garage was full so we’d have to keep searching. In the end, after we parked, we still had to take taxis everywhere.

Sicily

After Rome and Pompeii, we continued on to Sicily. We flew from Rome to Palermo Airport with Rynair, which was another mistake. The plane was around 3 hours late, and that caused us to actually come later than if we had driven there. In fact, we ended up having to rent cars at Palermo Airport anyways, since once again, my family chose to live somewhere without a train connection. This time, we rented two smaller cars including one manual transmission SUV and an Alfa Romeo, the only automatic they had at the time. This turned out to be a good idea because we were able to get around pretty quickly this way, and to see many beautiful sights along the way.

Having two cars also gave us the ability to split up which also helped keep stress levels low. Driving on the autostrada (highway type road) wasn’t a lot worse than driving on Los Angeles freeways, but driving around small streets was harder even with the normal sized Alfa Romeo sedan. I would recommend renting as small a car as possible (a two door hatchback maybe), and I just wouldn’t bother to rent anything bigger than a small SUV.  Also, when you are driving around, if you are using Google maps, keep in mind that it will send you on tiny cobblestone streets that are actually illegal to drive on unless you are a resident there. So you have to pay close attention to the signs yourself, and don’t fully trust Google maps.

We only spent a few days in Sicily, and it wasn’t enough at all. A week, at least, would have been much better. We didn’t even visit Palermo, because we were staying in the countryside. Also it was a bit rainy and some of us were trading sicknesses around this time, so we really saw very little. We spent one day wandering around the lovely town of Cefalù, where we saw a centuries old laundry, and another day at Agrigento, which took us a couple hours through some lovely mountains to get to.

North Italy

After Sicily, we returned to the North of Italy, and visited Venice, Florence, and Bolzano. Once again, my parents rented a car and we had to drive and park it everywhere. It did come in handy since it gave us the ability to leave when we wanted, so we didn’t have to conform to train schedules (something my family is very bad at doing), but we still had to find a place to park before taking public transport around the cities.

In Venice, there is parking in only one place on the island but there are a few different garages there with plenty of space in them. In Florence and Bolzano there is parking near the train stations. So yes, it is possible to take cars to these cities, it’s just a bit of a hassle, and parking is around 20-30 euro for a full day. The cost of tolls also adds up, being between 5-15 euro one way.

Anyways, we had a nice time with both of our families, but we did get pretty tired out. After all the family was gone, my husband and I just ordered pizza and slept for two days straight.

Weeks 79 through 83

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Apart from the terrifying accident that happened last week, we did manage a bit of a vacation. This weekend was Easter weekend, which is a huge holiday in much of Europe, Italy included. Because of the accident, we weren’t sure if we’d be able to make it to Trieste, as we had planned. Fortunately, the whiplash wasn’t so bad and I have few other injuries so we managed to go after all. We wandered around the center of Trieste itself on Saturday evening, enjoying the churches, Grand Canal, and pier. On Sunday, we took bus line 6 to Miramare, a lovely castle on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic sea (where I fell in love with a lizard, and stood taking pictures of him for like forever). Finally on Sunday, we took bus line 42 to Grotta gigante, a huge cave full of stalagmites, with a massive cavern over 100m high. In total we had one full day and two half days in Trieste, and I feel like this is enough to see the main sights, though in our case we missed a couple things due to my recovery.

Costs:
  • €235 – rent
  • €55 – internet
  • €30 – phone
  • €30 – garbage
  • €163 – groceries
  • €172 – trip to Trieste
  • €130 – aerial silks
  • Total: €825

Carnevale

Last weekend, we visited Carnevale in Venice. I have to say, there was remarkably less public drunkenness than last time, in Cologne, but there were a lot more people. It was like a giant Renaissance Faire style costume party. The costumes ranged from a cheap 5 euro mask, to elaborate home made cosplay level get ups. I couldn’t help but buy a hand painted paper maché mask for myself, while my husband stuck with a cheaper plastic one with the giant plague-doctor style nose.

Venice is such an amazing city– it’s just like in the stories! Tiny streets spider out from the center, alongside narrow canals filled with gondolas and motorboats. Little arched bridges make a criss-crossing latticework over the canals, while constricting alleyways cut between the tall buildings, sometimes passing through low tunnels or under arched building supports. It’s claustrophobic right up until you reach Piazza San Marco, a wide plaza marked by a huge tower, an intricate basilica and a 24-hour Roman numeral clock, and which opens up to the Piazzetta di San Marco, which holds the palace. The Piazzetta in turn opens up to the main thoroughfare of Venice, the Grand Canal, where ferry boats snake their way around the entire city center, bussing people to the main hubs like the Piazza and the train station. There are no automobile roads.

If you had told me all of this, even if you had shown me pictures, I still don’t think I could have properly imagined this intricate city. Visiting during Carnevale was an amazing experience, in particular, as the whole city turns into one joyful party, but I look forward to returning during a calmer time as well, when there’s more time to see the sights.

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